Thursday, October 17, 2013
Buses, Volcanos, and Pigeon Shit
Nestled high in the Andes along the Avenue of Volcanoes is Quito, Ecuador. A bustling metropolis that was once the northern capital of the Incan empire, this sprawling yet narrow city runs 67 kilometers north-south and is rapidly expanding east and west (though there's a mountain or two in the way).
They built a new airport far outside the city and they're turing the old one into a park, which is a very progressive and very green move. And the people are just wonderful. Jared (who is fluent in Spanish) talks to anyone, which is great. But also really funny. Like when a drunk guy started talking to him last night while we were waiting for the bus. The lady next to me kept rolling her eyes at me and air drinking a bottle of booze.
The apartment we're staying in is in the northern section of the city on Rio Coca (thanks to a kind and generous friend whom Jared and I know from our previous jobs). We have a garden terrace on the fourth floor and it's just lovely. Though obviously we haven't been here much in the last three days. We're about 20 minutes north of the downtown and old parts of town. Which is great, because it has given us a chance to ride multiple different types of buses, though not all intentionally.
Quito has a "trolley" system. Which are really just articulated buses that run on electric lines overhead in dedicated bus lanes. They also have smaller buses and what we might call jitneys, too. It costs twenty-five cents for the ride, and is an efficient system because of the dedicated lane. The issue is the buses get PACKED. Like tighter than sardines. I alway thought the trains got full in Istanbul, but it's amazing how stuffed they get here in Quito. It was a bit nerve-wracking last night riding home because my hands were up holding onto the bar. I was trying not the crush the woman who was against the pole next to me, yet all the people around me had nothing to hold on to so their weight shifted as the bus moved. At times I felt like Heman holding everyone in place, but that didn't last too long. I also had five layers of clothing on from having climbed and hiked Cotopaxi earlier in the day. Oh, they have a bike share system too! It's small, but still. It's a great step for progressive transportation in urban places.
On our first day, we roamed the city. The Old City was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site back in the 70s and for good reason: its colonial architecture is stunning. It has now been restored with precision and its grandeur shines through in the bright hues of pink, red, blue, green, yellow, and white that the buildings are painted. It is so charming. Narrow brick sidewalks and cobble stone streets, if it wasn't for all the exhaust and the god damn KFC's and fucking McDonald's, you'd think you were back in the old world.
The La Compania de Jesus is an historic marvel. The Jesuit cathedral was begun in 1605 and not completed for another 160 years. The amalgamation of architectural styles is what makes this gilded-gold wonder a site to behold. The pulpit reminded me of one in the Hagia Sofya, but not as tall. Moorish and Spanish styles stand out, and its perfect symmetry, even with all the statues, paintings, domes, and niches, sent chills up my spine to know it was all done by hand.
Listening in on one of the English speaking tour guides, he said, "In the last census, it was found that Ecuador is 85% Catholic. But not everyone goes to Church all the time, so we're really just Catholics on paper." I chuckled, having let go of my faith in the Catholic Church long ago.
Jared and I found the painting of the depiction of hell most fascinating. It is a massive painting -- perhaps 8 x 15 feet -- that gruesomely depicts some of the sins that one supposedly goes to hell for. The adulterer was portrayed by a topless woman; the glutton was being gutted; the gossip had it tongue bit by a snake; and the "impuridad" -- or the impure one (which we think might have meant gay) -- was having poison funneled down its throat and it's crotch lit on fire by a demon. The painting depicting heaven was boring.
There were no examples of people or labels explaining why they were in heaven. Just a plain scene with Saint Peter and Jesus and his posse -- white dudes in robes -- and a long line of people waiting. And waiting, and waiting, and waiting. Some of them were being tossed down to hell. But most seemed to be asking for forgiveness and welcomed into what is thought of as "heaven."
We roamed more and ate some delicious Hare Krishna vegetarian food. This was after we'd met a family while taking pictures at the intersection of Cuenca and Esmerdeles Streets. It's at the top of a stair case -- like other cities with lots of hills, some streets aren't roads, but stair cases, actually. They invited us up on their roof; then they invited us back over that night to watch the Chile v. Ecuador World Cup elimination game. It was quite the experience.
We got there two hours early because they told us the game started at 4, but it didn't actually start until 6. We brought a dozen beers. We were greeted by a lady and her four year old son, Alan, who was adorable. But he kept saying he wanted to find his pistol to shoot everyone. Oh well. After an hour and a half, I was getting tired and the guys that invited us over weren't there yet. We told them we were going to go, but she got to my heart by making us popcorn.
Then everyone started to gather -- including abuelita, whose name was Blanca. Another little one, probably 2 years old, Simone, Leonard, Narcica, Klever, and a lady whose name we didn't get congregated in the living room for the game. Then a Priest showed up to watch, too. It was a hoot. They served us popcorn, cake, and canelazo (cinnamon tea). But we both got really scared when the second half started because everyone started cooking.
Jared and I are both vegetarians. The worst thing in the world would have been to turn down a big plate of food from people who invited two gringos into their home. Thankfully, the bloody dinner they were preparing -- Jared got a glimpse of lots of organs, blood sausage, and other parts -- wasn't done by the time the game was over. We shared laughs, took pictures, and they called us a cab.
They all talked to me at times, even though my Spanish is a joke. I laughed and smiled and nodded and said what I could. It was pretty damn awesome.
The next day (Wednesday) we were off to Cotopaxi, one of eight active volcanoes in Ecuador. We booked a hike/climb/mountain bike adventure with a company called CapreDM http://www.carpedm.ca/.
While waiting for the bus, a pigeon shit on my arm and jacket pocket. Getting shat on by a bird I think is generally good luck, so since this happened in the early part of the trip, I'll take this as a positive sign.
It was a two hour bus ride to the volcano. She soars to a height of 5,897 meters or 19,347 feet. The base lodge is at 4500m; we then climbed to the refuge at 4864m. The final trek, with the air stunningly thin, was another 150 meters, where we arrived at the glacier. There were two main colors of pumice or volcanic rock -- a rich, earthy red, and a charcoal color. You could pick up big rocks like nothing.
The weather, though, was wild: rain, snow, sleet, and hail. We did it like the USPS, no matter the weather, the mail gets delivered. We scaled Cotopaxi through it all. At one point, the sun screamed through and we all quickly took off a couple of layers. It was awesome.
Of course when you're on the equator, you should wear sunscreen, even when it's overcast. Especially when you're climbing to 16,404 feet. Nothing bad, but my face is a bit red.
We descended in less than half the time it took for us to climb. Back at the base, we climbed on mountain bikes and went downhill on a rocky and very bumpy roadway for 3 kilometers. Jared flew over his handle bars at one point. I missed the actual fly, unfortunately, but I came around the corner to see him on the ground, picking himself and the bike up from the fall. He was smiling ear to ear, with a few minor flesh wounds and a rip in the crotch of his pants. Nothing a first aid kit and a tailor couldn't patch up though.
We ended the adventure at a volcanic lagoon in a low slung valley surrounded by mountains and snow-topped volcanoes.
There were 12 of us on the trip, plus our guide. Four Australians, two Germans, two Frenchman, a Canadian, and a Dutch guy. Jared and I were spending the least time traveling here. The French guys topped everyone with 5 months; the Aussies were doing 3 and 4 months, and the others anywhere from 2-4 months. They were all shocked at how short our trip is going to be and how much ground we are planning to cover. Such is the way of life outside of America: people take time off to enjoy the world. I'm one of the ones that does, too, and I continue to believe -- and talk about the fact that -- people would be happier, live longer, and be more productive in their work and social life if they took more time off from work. But that will take generations to change. Anyway.
There's a reason I shit my pants in Colombia. I was drinking coffee nonstop. The coffee is delicious here, too, and I'm aware of the fact of how dangerous it can get -- so I'm limiting myself to just coffee in the morning, a cup or two at most.
Tonight we're off to the Amazon. Cuyabeno is in eastern Ecuador and it bustles with wildlife. We're taking an overnight bus to Lago Agrio (which is a dangerous and ugly oil town) then quickly catching a bus for 3 hours east to the edge of the jungle. There we'll board motorized canoes and go two more hours into the rainforest before arriving at a lodge. We're there for five days.
We're hoping to see everything you'd expect to see during an Amazonian jungle trek -- pink and grey fresh water dolphins, monkeys, sloths, cayman, macaws, sundry types of birds, maybe even some jungle cats. But I'd love to NOT see an anaconda -- and Jared agrees. There are things that are sometimes best to do without, and we think that constrictor is one we're happy to go without seeing.
In other news, I'm really happy My Public Lands and the Department of Interior are posting to my InstaGram feed again. Even though I know our access to wireless, and electricity in general, is coming to a standstill in about 24 hours. I'm relieved things are up and running again back home.
I'm off to the jungle.